Kelly’s Heroes is one of the great war films of all time and it isn’t even a traditional one. It’s actually a heist film that takes place during World War II. When Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) captures a German officer who talks about a bank full of gold he convinces his unit commanded by Sgt. Big Joe (Telly Savalas) and a couple wacko tankers led by Sgt. Oddball (Donald Sutherland) to go behind enemy lines and “liberate” the bank. The movie has a definite counter-culture feel to it with some Hippie vibes from Oddball and a generally cynical view of the military.
What’s compelling about the movie is both the cast of characters and the action. Oddball is right out of the 1960s always talking about the need for positive vibes while his driver Moriarty (Gavin MacLeod) is always complaining. Then there’s Sgt. Crapgame (Don Rickles) who’s main goal in life is making money. They both provide some laughs. There’s more in the large ensemble cast.
There’s plenty of combat footage as well. Oddball and his three Sherman tanks completely destroy a German rail station and then the end involves Kelly and company taking on three German Tiger tanks in the French town where the hold’s held. They took an old Russian T-34 tank and turned it into a Tiger. It’s an amazing sight and plays a convincing role in the film.
All the while there’s a steady stream of criticism about the military. Kelly’s officer for example isn’t really in command and is more involved in running errands for his uncle who is a general. Speaking of officers the general in the area General Colt (Carroll O’Connor) is clueless about what’s going on in his own division. He always demands his units to attack while his subordinates make excuses. Again the counterculture feel of the story plays a role here. It openly questions the army and the hierarchy of the system with a definite anti-war theme.
Kelly’s Heroes was a great concept of a heist done by soldiers. At the same time it provided everything you wanted in a war movie with plenty of action and some great shots of tanks. All together it’s why it’s a standout movie.